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Here we examines how to successfully manage the transition from team member to team leader. An effective strategy for managing the transition from team member to team leader is important because this transition impacts the future performance of the team and its leader. This transitional phase sets behavioral norms for team members, establishes performance standards, affects members’ motivation, and creates the leader’s and members’ perceptions about their ability to excel as a cohesive unit.

The first section examines the functional and psychological impacts that this phase can have on team members and transitioning leaders. The second section explores the challenges that a newly promoted team leader faces when establishing influence over the team members who were once teammates. The best methods for establishing influence over a team are also assessed. Section three provides practical advice for newly promoted leaders to accelerate the transition process from team member to full fledged team leader, while setting the leader and the team up for future performance success.

Functional and Psychological Impacts of Transitioning to Team Leader

The most prominent roadblock to the successful transition from team member to team leader is overcoming existing perceptions that team members and the team leader hold about the leader’s role. When a team member is promoted to team leader, it is hard for team members to change their perceptions of that person from “teammate” to “team leader.” Furthermore, it is often hard for the newfound team leader to change his/her perception about his/her perceived role in team functions and dynamics. Role conflict and ambiguity stems from the fact that a person can only fill one role in their life at one point. People fit into roles like they wear hats, only one can be worn at a time. Given this analogy, problems arise when a person is put into a position where they must wear multiple hats at once. These problems, called role conflicts, can cause severe stress upon people and cause them to act in unpredictable ways.

A newly promoted team leader will be more successful if he/she does not try to maintain both the prior teammate role and the new team leader role, but instead transitions fully to the role of team leader. Maurice B. Mittelmark’s article, Social ties and health promotion: suggestions for population-based research, examines studies that tie role conflict to adverse psychological and function impacts. As applied to transitions from team member to leader, the article supports the proposition that newfound leaders will be less successful at managing the team and more psychologically stressed if the leader tries to maintain multiple roles, as teammate and team leader. “The Role Conflict situation is that in which multiple roles… are perceived to demand too much time and attention...” The article places “emphasis on multiple roles as the stress factor, not on too low capacity to perform as expected (although P [the team leader] may nevertheless take blame for not being able to mange somehow).” When a team leader proves ineffective at managing team member and team leader roles, it is the psychological stress of trying to manage multiple roles that causes the leader to fail. Failure is more a result of this stress than the increased functional workloads associated with performing the tasks associated with both roles.

Role conflict can also occur because of commitment and the brain’s strong tendency to want to be consistent with prior actions. For example, employees may lock themselves into certain roles by telling coworkers “they’ll always be there to support them.” However, when those employees are promoted the roles change. The promoted employees may find themselves stuck in certain roles because they want to remain consistent with what was said beforehand. In the example where a supervisor has to layoff a previous coworker and friend, dissonance is created and will interfere with the supervisory role. Employees who frame the role transition like they are trying to have their cake (their friends) and eat it too (play a supervisory role to those friends) are going to have difficulty in almost every step of the promotion process. Getting over this dissonance is the first step in allowing employees to accept promotions unhindered. By identifying the dissonance, allowing it to occur, and dealing with those emotions, employees can transition to different roles, easier, and with less stress. Self-perception is the key.

A way to prevent role conflict is to specify exactly what roles are involved and what responsibilities are defined. While these roles can be modified or changed whenever necessary, they should be modified only after consultation with other staff members (who may be working in a similar role). If role conflicts do arise then the role conflict should be brought up with other staff members 1) to see if the role is appropriate, 2) for role clarification, and 3) for role changes. Role conflicts can be seen ahead of time, so a defined strategy should be undertaken to either avoid this or dealt with appropriately. Organizations that are well planned out should also be able to predict when role conflicts are going to occur and adapt accordingly.

A newfound leader can further ease the stress of role transition by framing the move in different ways. In comparison, those who frame their move forward as a way to know more people within the company, for instance, will undoubtedly have less role conflict based stress because they are looking at things in a different way. While there will definitely be resistance from other members of the group who knew the employee as a coworker rather than as a leader, it is in the best interest of the new supervisor to deal with those people on a case-by-case basis when problems arise. Another framing error might be that the promoted employee is looking to the past too much rather than to the present. As stated, getting a promotion is going to cause issues with past coworkers in almost all situations. Framing the promotion differently such that new connections and opportunities are effectively taken advantage of can help to make the role transition easier, for instance, by looking at the promotion as a way to interface with people higher up in the organization. This will help in 3 ways:

It'll help to frame the coworkers separately from yourself, which can help you to prevent role conflict,
It'll help to make the promotion and new leadership more of an uplifting goal, since you now have new supervisors whom you want to impress, and
It’ll encourage new associations to be created for the promoted employee and their new coworkers.

Challenges and Methods for Establishing Influence over the Team
Team members who transition to manager or team leader, in the midst of an ongoing project, can face challenges in asserting their newfound influence. In such a case, the leader’s peers are now subordinates, and it can be tough for team members to take direction from someone whom they still consider a peer. As a form of resistance, certain contributors may deliberately or unwittingly display a lack of urgency in performing their requirements, under new leadership. Similarly, project meetings may also become less orderly, as team members allow distractions to occur and lack focus, taking advantage of the intermediary phase of their team’s and leader’s development. Some new managers interpret this as a sign of jealousy or animosity on the part of their former peers. While the competitive cultures of many companies certainly raise this possibility, it is not necessarily (and perhaps not even often) the case. Rather, these disruptions are likely signs that the newly assigned team leader’s authority is not properly recognized.

Interestingly, problems stemming from a lack of leadership authority can be more pronounced when promotion occurs from within a team. Leaders can establish influence over a team, by leveraging sources of leadership power and providing teams with satisfying work challenges.

In order to lead effectively a manger’s authority must be well established. Sotiriou and Wittmer’s article, “Influence Methods of Project Managers: Perceptions of Team Members and Project Managers,” and Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion, both determine “authority” to be the most effective method for leaders to influence team performance. Cialdini’s book describes the various aspects of authority as encompassing perceptual cues, such as titles, positions, and appearance, and concrete knowledge and expertise. Superficial cues such as formal titles or a list of accolades that may lend to the authoritative image of an unfamiliar manager cannot serve a newly promoted team member who is already well known to the group. Managers who are promoted from within an existing team face a unique challenge with respect to establishing their authority primarily as a result of the perceptual components of authority. However, the expertise of a familiar teammate-turned-manager should also be well known.

Sotirious and Wittmer’s article presents the findings of three separate studies that attempt to measure the importance of various factors relating to managerial influence. “Expertise” was examined as a separate factor in the project management studies but showed almost identical ratings to the “authority” component, which suggests that these methods are closely related. These studies also provide evidence that knowledge, as an influence method is highly correlated to project manager effectiveness. Newly promoted managers are therefore best served by leveraging their knowledge and expertise, to establish authority within their new role. Cialdini’s book Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion, identifies “liking” as an important factor in enabling people to influence others. He endorses the persuasion technique that leverages “liking” or friendship as a way for leaders to influence team members, out of a sense of obligation to the leader and in support of the norms of that friendship. In a situation where a colleague is promoted to leadership status, the new manager might hope to rely on friendship ties with former peers to help motivate the team and encourage them to take direction. However, “liking” is shown by Sotiriou and Wittmer to be a weak factor in effective team leadership and cohesion. While “liking” may be a strong factor in influencing people, studies show that “friendship” is perceived by team members as a comparatively weak influence method that is not strongly correlated with a project manager’s effectiveness. The reason for this lack of correlation between liking and leader effectiveness are most likely related to the role conflict issues discussed in section one. However, in this case it is an issue of role perception on the part of the team. Without realizing it, team members adopt a familiarity with the new manager that is consistent with his or her collegial or “friendship” role and do not properly respond to the new supervisory role.

Another challenge for new managers related to the “liking” component of influence is the familiar “us vs. them” mentality that may characterize the relationship between workers and supervisors. While it is not appropriate to rely on friendships to motivate and direct team efforts, it is still necessary to eliminate adversarial relationships between team members and team leaders. Cialdini identifies “contact and cooperation” as valuable methods of unifying groups that may originally perceive themselves to be at odds. “Conjoint efforts toward common goals” can help to overshadow contentious relationships. In the context of a project team, leaders should try to keep the focus on the challenges the team is faced with and the goals of the initiative. This approach appears to be confirmed by Sotiriou and Wittmer’s project management studies that identify “work challenge” as overall the most important factor contributing to the influence of project managers. “…creating professionally challenging projects is the single most important factors to team members. These results further support models of motivation that emphasize creating meaningful and challenging work, even more than coercive power and control over position and compensation as methods of influence.”

Overall, a leader transitioning from the team member role must establish influence over team members, in order to achieve team performance success. The best way to gain influence is through a combination of the two main techniques discussed in this section. Foremost, the newfound leader should exert the leader’s knowledge and expertise, in order to gain respect and credibility from the team. In conjunction, the leader should also creating challenging and satisfying work for the team to focus on achieving, in order to prove that the leader’s influence can lead the team to produce effective outcomes. These two methods are paramount for a newfound leader to overcome the challenge of establishing managerial authority over a group that was once his/her peers.

Practical Advice for Accelerating a Leadership Transition

A change in leadership of a project team requires a period of transition for everyone involved, and especially for the new leader. One of the best resources for practical and applicable advice about how to manage this period of transition is The First 90 Days: Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels by Michael Watkins. This book offers a structure and framework to help new leaders manage and accelerate the transition process into their new role.

Here we identifies ten key challenges for any new leader. We have adapted these ten challenges to apply to the specific situation of a project team member moving into a team leader role, and later we will discuss the challenges we feel are most important for this particular situation. The ten challenges are as follows:

Promote Yourself: Change your mindset into the realities of your new position. Don’t get stuck on sticking with what has been successful for you in the past. Your new position may require you to develop and rely on new skills to make you and your team successful.
Accelerate Your Learning: In transitioning into a leadership role in the same company and on the same team, this is less important, but still vital to the new leader’s success. As a member of the team, you should be familiar with the industry, company, competitors, market, and project. However, as the leader of the project team, you may not be as familiar with the other parts of the project you were not directly responsible for, so learning about these parts from your team members will be essential.
Match Strategy to Situation: You need to diagnose the business situation, and clarify its unique challenges and opportunities. Being part of the project team, you should already have a good idea of what category of transition this is, as well as a good sense for the team dynamics. This will help you in developing general guidelines and strategies on how to properly accelerate the transition.
Secure Early Wins: Building credibility will be essential to establishing your new role on the team, and securing early wins is the best way to achieve this. Formal authority over your former peers will only carry you so far before your team members start to think, “I could probably do a better job.” Securing early wins will demonstrate to the team that you can plan and achieve tangible goals for the group, and they will be more willing to accept the new appointment.
Negotiate Success: Perhaps the most important relationship in your new role is the relationship between you and your new boss. This means carefully planning a series of conversations with your new boss about the situation, expectations, style, resources, and both your and your team’s development.
Achieve Alignment: Ensure that your goals, your team’s goals, and the organization’s goals are all in alignment.
Build Your Team: Inheriting a team will of course yield a variety of interpersonal short-term issues. Depending on the nature of your transition, you may or may not be given authority to make personnel decisions immediately or at all. After diagnosing your situation, you will better be able to make recommendations to your boss, or ideally make your own decisions about how to restructure your team for optimal performance.
Create Coalitions: Your success will also depend on your ability to influence people outside your direct line of control. As the new leader of your team, you will be expected to represent your team to the larger organization. You should also build and maintain alliances with the key people in your team necessary to your ultimate success.
Keep Your Balance: Transitions are extremely difficult times, and it is very easy to lose perspective, become isolated, and make bad decisions. To help maintain a balanced perspective, you need to develop a strong advice and counsel network both inside and outside your team and organization.
Expedite Everyone: You need to not only accelerate your own transition, but the transitions of everyone you work with – direct reports, bosses, and peers.
The most important challenges that pertain to a project team member stepping into a project management or leadership role relate to Watkins described challenges 1, 3, 4, and 5. For project specific transition acceleration as described in this Wiki Chapter, we believe the four most important challenges are Challenge 1 (Promote Yourself), Challenge 3 (Match Strategy to Situation), Challenge 4 (Secure Early Wins), and Challenge 5 (Negotiate Success). We are assuming that since the protagonist in this scenario has already been involved in the project, he or she will already be very familiar with the company, the industry, and the project team (Challenge 2). We also can assume that since this is a project-specific team, it will be dissolved once the project is completed, so the longer-term challenges of creating organizational alignment (Challenge 6), managing team composition (Challenge 7), and creating coalitions (Challenge 8) are not as important as if this were a permanent position, for example, on an executive team. Challenges 9 and 10 are good general rules to follow in any type of situation, so we will not focus on them at this time.

Challenge 1, “Promote Yourself,” relates to the psychological transition that a team member must make when promoted to team manager. As discussed in section one, a newly promoted leaders must change their perception of themselves and re-frame their roles within the team. While it may seem that framing would be most difficult for the leader’s former peers, in reality, the new leader is the one whose own behaviors much change first and foremost. Watkins presents several suggestions for crystallizing the transition from teammate to team leader. In summary, it is important for new leaders to clarify in their mind and/or through ceremony, a clear breaking point between moving from team member to leader. Second, new leaders must set stage by stage goals to make the new management task seem tangible and progressive. Incremental goals serve as building blocks for evolving the leader’s perception away from team member and toward team leader.

Challenge 3, “Matching Strategy to Situation,” is arguably the most important challenge for a team leader transitioning from being a team member. Without fully understanding what stage the project team is in and tailoring the managerial approach to the team’s current situation, a new leader will stumble and fail to achieve results. The First 90 Days outlines a framework for helping to diagnose the team’s current situation, called the STaRS model (for Start-up, Turn-around, Realignment, and Sustaining Success.) See appendix 1 for STaRS chart. The STaRS model details four business situations; start-up, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining-success. A transitioning leader must assess the company situation and identify the challenges and opportunities associated with the situation, in order to recognize the structural implications underpinning their team’s ability to perform. People who move from team member to team leader are likely a result from a business’ need for realignment. In a realignment situation, the leader’s challenge is to revitalize a team project which has dilapidated. In this situation, the leader must challenge engrained counter-productive norms, convince team members that change is warranted, as well as, restructure and refocus the team. These challenges are offset by potential strengths already inherent in the team. Also, team members’ prior success serves as motivation for wanting to achieve future success.

Watkins’ assertion that transitional leaders must match their strategy to the team’s situation is in line with Hersey and Blanchard’s Developmental Theory of Leadership. This theory matches leadership style to group maturity. Group maturity is a function of time, and leadership style matches relationship-orientation and task-orientation to the group’s stage of development. In the case of transitioning leaders, the group may be mature when the teammate is promoted to team leader, but because the dynamic of the team is now changed, the leader may need to adapt his/her leadership strategy to fit the formative stage of team development. In the formative stage, the new leader should first focus on the team’s tasks. After this initial phase, the leader should then heighten his/her relationship-orientation, while maintaining equal focus on task-orientation.

Challenge 4, “Secure Early Wins,” is essential for establishing credibility as the new leader of the team. These early wins should be “team wins” as opposed to wins for the new leader. This will help build the perception that the new leader is effective not just in managing his or her own work, but more importantly getting the team to work together towards common goals. Watkins asserts that a new leader’s “earliest actions will have a disproportionate influence on how you are perceived” New leaders are perceived as more credible when they display a specific managerial style. This style, according to Watkins, consists of six components. A new leader must be (1) “demanding but able to be satisfied” (motivate member to commit to and achieve realistic goals,) (2) “accessible but not too familiar” (establish approachability without compromising authority,) (3) “decisive but judicious” (communicate ability to take charge without making hasty big decisions,) (4) “focused by flexible” (establish authority but consult team members and encourage team input,) (5) “active without causing commotion” (build momentum without overwhelming,) and (6) “willing to make tough calls but humane” (ensure decisions are fair and preserve team members’ dignity.)

Challenge 5, “Negotiate Success,” is another challenge that is essential in almost any situation. Ultimately, your boss is the main person who will be evaluating your team’s and your individual performance, which are directly tied. So establishing criteria and tangible objectives with your new boss are essential. Also, keep in mind that these goals may have been set for you by your predecessor, but as part of Challenge 3, you must evaluate these objectives and determine if they are still realistic given the transition period required for the change in leadership, among other factors which your predecessor might not have taken into consideration.


This article focuses on how to manage the transition from team member to team leader, when working in a team-based organization. The functional and psychological impacts of this transition are examined within the parameters of role conflict. Stress and impaired functionality are negative outcomes that may arise from trying to maintain the prior team member role and expanding to fill the new leadership role. The best way to overcome such role conflict is to relinquish the prior teammate role and frame the leadership role as a definitive new challenge. Once the new leader has successfully changed his/her perception from team member to leader, the leader can establish influence over the team. The best way to influence a team is through a combination of leveraging knowledge and expertise and implementing work challenges that focus the team toward concrete goals. This combination technique establishes the leader’s credibility with the team and primes the group to visualize accomplishing future goals under such leadership. Lastly, ways to accelerate the transition process are detailed in section 3. The most important challenges for a new leader are enumerated, along with the best ways to overcome such challenges. This paper advises transitional leaders in promoting oneself, matching leadership strategy to the situation, securing early wins, and negotiating success.
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